March 17, 2016

BARELY LEGAL | A Perspective on German Law School

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If you think you want to be a lawyer but also wish you could stay in school as long as a medical student, you might consider studying law in Germany. The German legal education system takes up ten or more years in most cases — all of them filled with eyebrow-raising words like Zahlungsauthentifizierungsinstrumentelesegerät. I’m spending my third year of law school getting a master’s degree in Berlin, and I thought I’d use this column to show some meaningful differences between the German and American legal education systems. There’s a lot of logic in the German system, and American legal education would do well to adapt certain aspects of it.

First, university administration is worlds apart from what we know here at Cornell. It’s not that it doesn’t exist, or that nice and intelligent people aren’t in charge of it — it’s just that there is a much lower administrator-to-student ratio, so administrators simply can’t do as much for you. Matriculation is an example: it involved being shuttled from room to room so that I could receive a piece of paper saying that I was matriculated, and lasted an entire day. In contrast, Cornell’s administration responds to email within hours, and everything as simple as matriculation is done online.

A reason for the difference is that the German State subsidizes the university system, and state-funded systems often have less money than their private counterparts. The inadequate funding means that facilities originally built by the communist East German government still look that way (complete with — and I’m not joking — Marx and Engels stained-glass windows).  On the other hand, German law students do not pay for their education and receive subsidized meals, so they escape the staggering student loan debt American law students know all too well.

Second, lectures are very different in Germany. In most American law schools, professors use the Socratic Method (randomly calling on students). This can be terrifying, but it makes you do your reading and pay attention. Here, by contrast, professors deliver lectures in monotonous two or three-hour chunks of PowerPoint slides. Students who want to get ahead can buy books, but they’re not required. This means that success in a German law school depends to a great extent on individual students’ work ethic. Because the first part of legal education begins at age eighteen, this means that many students need to rapidly disabuse themselves of high-school habits, and it doesn’t always work.

The most redeeming quality of the German system, however, is the practical experience it requires.  To become a lawyer in Germany, you need to do a two or three-year “Referendariat” after your four or five years in school. During the Referendariat, you rotate between different three-month “stations” at law firms, courts, administrative agencies, states attorneys’ offices and similar places. This is something that our legal system truly lacks. The stations cover almost every job in which you could imagine practicing as a German lawyer. This means that people leaving the system likely have a very good idea of the kind of lawyers they would like to be. To contrast, the typical American law student only does two internships, one each after the first and second years of law school. The Referendariat, combined with the two State Exams Germans need to take before and after it, means that German lawyers in many cases are much better prepared to be lawyers when they leave law school than their American counterparts. They’ve simply done the job for a longer amount of time under professional supervision than we have.

Much ink has been shed discussing the need for reform in American legal education.  As many have written, the third year of law school is often unnecessary, and law students likely would benefit if it were abolished in favor of a year of small internships. An exclusively practice-oriented third year, similar to the Referendariat, would reduce the learning curve many encounter in their first legal jobs. If employers were allowed to pay students during that year, students might have less debt and be more inclined to go into public service instead of corporate law. In that vein, it is worth noting that while Germany cannot offer the best facilities or administration, it does not saddle its law students with over $50,000 of debt every year. That is a trade-off that many American law students would be happy to make.

To be clear, the German system is not perfect. Professors are less approachable, and the availability of free education encourages a degree arms race wherein students amass unnecessary LLMs and doctorates. The length of time it lasts — ten years or more — is also excessive. Still, it is hard to escape the impression that German law school is probably a better system for German clients than American law school is for American ones.

Garrett Biedermann is a J.D. candidates at Cornell Law School. Responses can be sent to associate-editor@cornellsun.com. Barely Legal appears alternate Fridays this semester.